Interview with SASE President Gary Herrigel


“In general, I am more interested in identifying possibilities for inclusion and change rather than being satisfied with more conventional left and social democratic concerns for “critique” or identifying how bad capitalism is now or how even worse it is becoming.”

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your intellectual background?

Of course. I am Gary Herrigel, the Paul Klapper Professor in the College and the Division of the Social Sciences at the University of Chicago. My formal professional home is in the Political Science department, but I also have a courtesy appointment in Sociology. I received my PhD in Science, Technology, and Society Studies and Political Science at the MIT. This was a very important experience for me, partly because I met my friend, mentor, and colleague Charles Sabel there. We have been in conversation with each other for my entire professional career and have collaborated on many projects together. But, in general, Cambridge (Mass.) at that time had a very robust community of scholars who collectively made it possible for me to work, as I do, at the intersection of Political Theory, Comparative Political Economy, Industrial Relations, Economic Sociology, Organization Theory, Business History, and Economic Geography. That community included professors Josh Cohen, Susanne Berger, Peter Hall, Michael Piore, Merritt Roe Smith, Paul Osterman, and Bennett Harrison, and fellow graduate students Anno Saxenian, Richard Locke, Anthony Levitas, Gerry Berk, Victoria Hattam, Colleen Dunlavy, Jim Womack, Toshihiro Nishiguchi, Gerry McDermott, Sue Helper, Nick Ziegler, Ellen Immergut, Tom Ertman, and Jonathan Fox.

From the beginning, my scholarly and research interests have focused on the social and political embeddedness of economic organization and practices.  In particular, I have always been interested in alternative, inclusive, and participatory governance forms in the socio-economy and, correlatively, in the limits of markets and bureaucratic command and control hierarchies as governance forms. As an artifact of my position as a scholar in the historical period in which I have been working and, I guess, as a matter of theory in general, my focus has been on the ways in which environmental uncertainty can paradoxically give rise to cooperation in complex industrial contexts.  I have been very influenced by the process and action theories of the American Pragmatists and the contemporary academic carriers of that inheritance (e.g., Sabel, Andrew Abbott, Chris Ansell, Jonathan Zeitlin and “old” institutionalists such as Philip Selznick and Anselm Strauss), as well as the affiliated, or complimentary, Europeans who have written in this tradition (Hans Joas, Jens Beckert, Wolfgang Knöbl, Laurent Thevenot, Luc Boltanski, etc.). 

Working at the University of Chicago, in a rich interdisciplinary environment with stellar colleagues over time, like Abbott, John Padgett, Karin Knorr-Cetina, George Steinmetz, Paul Cheney, Michael Geyer, Moishe Postone, Bill Sewell, and a large highly heterodox cohort of political theorists, allowed me to continue on the interdisciplinary path that I began at MIT. I guess this accounts for my somewhat idiosyncratic and decentralized publishing record. My political science colleagues (and the Social Sciences Deans at the University of Chicago) have stood by with raised eyebrow but also (to their credit) with fundamental toleration, as I have published in Sociology, Management, Industrial Relations, Business History, Economic Geography, and only sometimes in Political Science Journals.  I have also published three books, all focused on industrial recomposition and change in the US, Germany, and, more recently, Asia. Each one was included in a different disciplinary or sub-disciplinary series (economic sociology/network analysis, business and political economy, and global labor studies, respectively).

Can you say a bit more about your core theoretical concerns that tie this panoply of different research areas together?

Well, I have always been concerned with how to make work life more equitable and democratic, more inclusive and participatory. That has focused my attention on production, the division of labor, firms, and property forms as well as questions of governance. In general, I am more interested in identifying possibilities for inclusion and change rather than being satisfied with more conventional left and social democratic concerns for “critique” or identifying how bad capitalism is now or how even worse it is becoming.  I guess I just feel like the latter message, important as it is ritualistically for people to convey, is not so original, interesting, or helpful. I am interested in how, in spite of deep power asymmetries, possibilities for transformation and inclusion often very paradoxically come to the fore.  This kind of revolutionary reformist interest has underwritten virtually all of my projects.

My initial research inquiries were about alternatives to the corporation, particularly decentralized, collaborative production arrangements in industrial districts composed of small and medium-sized firms. For my first book, Industrial Constructions, which grew out of my MIT dissertation, I did a lot of historical work on industrial district development in Germany, trying to understand the viability and capacity for change that was characteristic of those production patterns. Though concerned to highlight the collaborative and inclusive possibilities illustrated by decentralized practices, the project was also aware of their conditionality and limits. As a result, the work also focused on how larger, more vertically integrated German firms had themselves sometimes developed a capacity for inclusiveness, forms of self-governance, and stakeholder participation. Ultimately, the aim was to foreground the history of struggles over participation and collaboration in German industry and to highlight possibilities for the success of inclusive and participatory strategies.

After my first book, I moved to study contemporary production disintegration more broadly, in both developed and emerging political economies.  Key about these processes in the recent past is that they freely transgress national boundaries and have a governance logic that is very complexly articulated with traditional national level governance arrangements. As a result, I became very interested in multinational enterprises and supply chains.  And, as ever, my focus was on how emergent disintegrated relations could be organized in a positive inclusive and collaborative way.

From the perspective of the state or of the companies involved?

From the perspective of the social division of labor in production. I have always been a bad political scientist, I guess, as I really have always viewed the state from a highly contextual, relational and bottom-up perspective, and have been a critic of more deductive and top-down, monocausal, structuralist,  and institutionalist approaches  to relations between the economy, society, and politics. My consistent focus has been on historically specific, interdependent, mutually constitutive dynamics within the division of labor itself. From that point of view, the state, or rather the government, is one relational element, one stakeholder among many, shaping dynamics within processes of production and value creation. I tend to see political (or, more broadly, institutional)  “constraints” as much less constraining than is usually assumed. There are always constraints, but for me constraints are just forms of social relation and process that are continuously pressed to reproduce themselves under often unpredictable circumstances.  Even reproduction processes result in relational recomposition that can change possibilities in the way that roles are allocated and positions in the division of labor are constituted. The challenge is to identify conditions and situations under which seemingly unbreakable rules or overwhelming power disparities can be evaded, undercut, or even simply ignored in multidimensional joint action processes.

My second book, Manufacturing Possibilities (MP), focused on these sorts of creative relational and processual dynamics quite centrally. It dealt with the historical evolution of traditional manufacturing industries (steel, automobiles, machinery) and how they were changing across the entire broad post World War II period.  The dominant focus, particularly in the second part of that book, was on the breakup of vertically integrated manufacturing operations and the diffusion of extensive supply chain relations. The book investigated how collaborative relations, both within firms and across supply chains, emerged, what blocked them, and what kinds of policies and strategies could be put into place to make them more feasible and/or sustainable. MP addressed more traditional comparative political economy concerns by asking how the kinds of emergent collaborative arrangements it identified related to incumbent forms of worker representation and, generally, to larger architectures of relations and policy that were implicated in US and European manufacturing. Indeed, the book’s real interest was in the way that creative recomposition processes “on the ground” – i.e., in the increasingly disintegrated division of labor in production – were outrunning the roles, norms, and institutional arrangements that were allegedly constraining and enabling players to act. 

After the publication of MP, and in large part in collaboration with my dear late friend and colleague Volker Wittke, I moved this family of questions to the next level: That is, we focused on the globalization of disintegrated production to lower wage emerging economies.  Specifically, we looked at the way in which German Automobile and Machinery manufacturers were setting up production operations and whole manufacturing clusters in Central Europe and China. The former case involved the extension of German relations and practices to make a broader interdependent European cluster. The Chinese case analyzed an even more ambitious dynamic: It showed that German firms were attempting to recreate their European production clusters in the Chinese context – producing basically the same models at the same quality levels as those they manufactured in their home clusters. The project spends a great deal of time showing how this was a ‘recreation’ process in the Kirkegaardian sense, meaning that in order to do the same thing – produce the same products and technologies in different locations – the manufacturers had to reconceive who they were and what they were capable of as producers. Ultimately, they produce the same products in remarkably different ways in China.

In studying this cluster (re)creation process, we became fascinated by the recursive learning dynamics that were involved.  By reconceiving their operations abroad, producers were encountering new ways to organize and arrange their relations and processes at home. Globalization was producing learning and generating innovation.  And, among the most interesting firms, these recursive learning dynamics were generated and managed by governance architectures that were highly inclusive and remarkably self-recompositional.  Uncertainty and constant pressures for innovation led firms to open themselves to broad stakeholder experience; this placed a value on collaborative goal setting and problem solving; and the learning that resulted from such interactions pushed companies to recompose themselves continuously.

Initially, we embarked on the project to study transnational supply chain and cluster dynamics. But the more we followed these recursive, self-recomposing processes, the more our attention turned to the internal organization and governance arrangements within multinational corporations themselves.  Ultimately, a large part of the book that has recently come out of this project – Globale Qualitätsproduktion. Transnationale Produktionssysteme in der Automobilzulieferindustrie und im Maschinenbau (Campus Verlag, 2017), coauthored with Wittke and Ulrich Voskamp – focuses on how efforts to both stimulate and manage global production, organizational learning, and innovation were expanding stakeholder involvement and participation on a global level.  Or, at least, the book shows that the globalization of German manufacturing practices was generating those possibilities.  The book also outlines characteristic obstacles to this kind of participation and learning, and attempts, as a result, to characterize newly emerging forms of stakeholder struggle and politics in globalizing production.

I have now embarked on two new projects, which take a thread from this interest in the inclusive and participatory potential in governance architectures that focus on recursivity and learning.  One deals with corporate production systems, transnationality, and labor standards in two very different sectors – Automobiles and Agricultural commodity production.  The other also deals with Agriculture, primarily Milk and Dairy production, and looks at the impact of learning and self-optimizing business practices (e.g., lean production and comprehensive corporate production systems) on environmental sustainability in the US, German, and Swiss industry.  I am excited to immerse myself in these new areas and continue to look for practical ways to upgrade production and competitiveness, enhance participation, and improve the environment. All power to the imagination.

The theme of the upcoming SASE meeting is global reordering. What does this topic mean to you and why it is important?

Global reordering seemed appropriate as an overarching theme because it is just a fact empirically that the relations of economic asymmetry and of political governance that have structured the world order for the last 80 years, i.e., since the end of WWII, are undergoing profound recomposition.  The emergence of China, for example, means an enormous change in the way that goods, services, and technological knowledge flow in the global economy. This has affected governance hierarchies financially, organizationally, technologically, and politically across the globe. Given SASE’s preoccupations, it seems appropriate to address the many questions raised by these sorts of historical shifts.

Does the fact that the next conference is going to take place in Asia owe to a sense that socio-economics should be more globally oriented?

SASE is a collective body and does not follow my personal vision or agenda.  The President is just a shop steward for a year.  But, yes, I think having the conference in Kyoto this coming year expresses the growth and sophistication of that part of the world and the corresponding wealth of scholarship that is generated there. Asian themes and ideas are an increasingly important part of the association and we need to acknowledge, celebrate, and benefit from that.

As President, how you would characterize SASE to someone unfamiliar with the association?

SASE originally emerged for reasons that still provide it with meaning and purpose. It was initially organized, in the 1980s, because there was no space for people working at the intersection of political, social, and economic processes in the conventional disciplinary landscape. So, people working on industrial relations, people working on economic sociology, and people doing comparative political economy came together to organize a conversation that was not occurring anywhere else. By now, political economy and economic sociology have, of course, flourished in and across the disciplines of Political Science and Sociology. To a certain extent, they even have had a little revival in History and have developed a kind of rearguard presence in Business and Law schools. SASE has become a prominent international platform for research work in these highly interdisciplinary domains.

Moving forward, SASE needs to continue to open itself to new and creative currents of social science emerging at the intersection of the social, the economic, and the political.  There are very positive signs that the association has been doing this. For example, several of the largest networks in SASE have emerged only in the last ten years or so – Finance and Society, Asian Capitalisms, and Global Value Chains. There is now also a great deal of work being done on digitization and various aspects of what John Zysman and Martin Kenny refer to as the “platform economy”. It seems very likely that this will also soon emerge as a new network.

These have all been substantively driven networks.  But the association has also been able to respond to the emergence of new theoretical agendas as well. For example, there is much innovative theorizing and heterogeneous empirical work going on about regulation in transnational contexts. People like Tim Bartley, Jonathan Zeitlin, Sigrid Quack, David Levi-Faur, and many others have been doing exciting work on standards and alternative governance forms across a wide array of substantive domains, much of which has been featured in SASE’s Regulation and Governance network.

Another area that we need to open ourselves to and which has been very dynamic outside the SASE world is the ultra-micro application of methodologies from the Social Studies of Science to economic and financial processes – work, for example, that has been done in a particularly creative way by our mutual colleague Karin Knorr-Cetina here at the University of Chicago.  To engage with this new area, we are going to have a mini-conference at SASE this year, and we are hoping that we can leverage this to build bridges between SASE and this very dynamic area in economic sociology.

There are, of course several other issues that have been around for a while and that are now pressing to the fore. In particular, there is a growing interest in the association about gender and the role of gender at the intersection of the political, the economic, and the social. Practically, there is also substantial concern in the SASE membership about representation in leadership positions, on panels, and in networks. These issues are important and there is movement within the Association on many fronts to open itself and expand opportunities, intellectually and politically.

Indeed, gender is also going to be the central feature of the next SASE newsletter. But let me ask you something else about SASE’s structure: Would you say that the organization is characterized by a core set of concerns and organizational outlets, or is it more a fragmented archipelago grouped under the arbitrary heading of SASE?

I guess I am more of a decentralized practice theorist than a Herbert Simon-type top-down directive organization theorist. It is not a useful or wise thing to make an overly precise claim about what the identity of an Association is. SASE draws strength from its heterogeneity. There are many different conceptions of what the enterprise is and what it is really about. Rather than thinking that this is a problem, I think that it is a strength that allows SASE to evolve over time, to embrace new kinds of issues and grow theoretically.

Do you have any specific plans for your tenure as President, other than facilitating the growth of cross-theoretical fertilization?

Not beyond the things I have already mentioned. I guess, for me, the most important issue at the moment is that SASE is making progress in taking Asia seriously, on a practical and theoretical level. Getting all these Europeans and Americans to not be afraid to travel to Asia for a conference is an important step toward cultural opening that will have intellectual consequences for the Association going forward. Besides that, I feel very strongly about the opening up to new theoretical perspectives. I am very enthusiastic about the micro-phenomenological approaches that Karin and others have been pursuing. I am also really interested in the new forms of regulation and am excited about all the new percolating initiatives on the gender, race, and culture fronts.

Interview conducted by Georg Rilinger

* This article is taken from the SASE Winter Newsletter 2017/18 – Click here to go back to the Contents Page*


This article is taken from
SASE Winter Newsletter 17/18
Go to Contents